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Hiring the Right Contractor

“Matchmaker, Matchmaker, make me a match. Find me a catch…” No, I am not referring to a shidduch here, rather the perfect contractor. Anyone who has ever done any remodeling or renovation can attest to how hard it is to find a good contractor.  Finding the wrong contractor can turn your home project and life into a nightmare – a costly one. According to the CFA (Consumer Federation of America) and NACAA (National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators), contracting is the top complaint among homeowners doing home improvement. Another survey found that almost half of all respondents would not hire their original contractor for future projects.  Contractors and handymen are a dime a dozen with catchy, clever ads boasting their skills and prices. So how is an average homeowner supposed to weed the good from the bad?


Booking the Builder

Everyone swears by their guy: “He’s the best,” they say.  But how do you know? There are many places one can look to find a contractor, including the Yellow Pages, online, print advertisements, friends and neighbor referrals, web review sites (like Angie’s List or  Home Advisor), and government agencies like Better Business Bureau.

A variety of a few sources is best here. Don’t just go by a flashy ad or your friend’s rave review. And don’t necessarily be discouraged by a bad review online.  As Shea Rubenstein, founder and owner of J Builders, points out, those raving reviews could have been all written by someone’s relatives, and scathing reviews could have been posted by one disgruntled customer posting under multiple aliases. Online reviews cannot be verified or confirmed, so anyone can post anything under a made up name. This is not a credible source.  The Better Business Bureau website is a good starting point in determining if a contractor is good and to see if they have any pending lawsuits or complaints issued against them. Another good place to check out a potential contractor is the Department of Buildings website. If the contractor or name of the company is not included on the DOB list of approved contractors that may be a red flag. The company needs to exist; and they should provide you with a physical location, explains Oren Michaeli, owner of Prime Stucco, who warns customers to make sure to get the real, legal name of the company which will be working on their home.   

When you are interviewing potential contractors, it is almost like a shidduch date. If you really cannot stand their personality and find them to be impatient, arrogant or rude, don’t hire them.  This is more than just a business arrangement; you will spend weeks if not months with them, so you need to get along.

There are also some quirky tips on picking your contractor. It has been suggested that checking out the general contractor’s car is a good way of predicting how well the work will go. Meaning, if the car is old, unkempt or disorganized, chances are so is his work. Another idea is to visit your local hardware store and ask them who comes in to purchase materials and if they make frequent returns due to errors in purchasing or sizing. Where your contractor lives can also be an  indicator of good work. If a contractor is seeking work in an area outside his residence, that may be a sign that he cannot find work in his own zip code. Michaeli says that Prime Stucco gets job offers from all over, all the time, but that they prefer to work locally. Michaeli’s clients mostly come from word of mouth. “I don’t take jobs from other areas since the people know me here and my work is displayed all over the neighborhood.” If a contractor is looking for work in a specific neighborhood but lives out of the area, that may be a potential warning sign.

  When it comes to interviewing contractors don’t just go for the guy with the cheapest rate. It is wise to get multiple estimates and go somewhere in the middle.  Rubenstein says that the number one mistake customers make is not properly comparing quotes. Customers compare the total price, but often don’t compare the details of each and don’t realize that the contractor with the higher number may be cheaper in the end.  “When the price is too cheap, it may be a way of getting you in and then up-charging you for every item to make up the difference,” he explains.  

Other common mistakes homeowners commit is not checking the references. Don’t assume they will just give good reviews. Call them and ask them specific questions about the project. In addition, don’t just take their word for granted, advises Michaeli, who strongly recommends visiting the job site to see the completed work.  “Don’t be lazy. See for yourself the quality of the work and materials.”  The most important thing to do is to meet the contractor in person and visit one of his jobs to get a visual of what his work looks like. “An honest and trustworthy person is much more valuable than anything. Bottom line, he will be the one supervising the work and making sure everything will be done,” explains Aaron Althiem, a master electrician and owner of Life Spot Electric.

Clients also need to ask for a timeline and payment schedule so there are no issues later. Anyone who demands all or too much money upfront for materials and labor is trying to scam you. The norm is to ask for no more than 15 percent upfront just to get the job started. Most states allow contractors to ask for a maximum of 33 percent of the total cost upfront, but any amount exceeding that is a bad sign.   


Not My Job

This tends to be a common phrase uttered by many contractors much to the chagrin of their confused clients. Many homeowners, especially first timers, are misinformed about what exactly is a contractor’s job.  A contractor is not the be-all and end-all. Every contractor is different; just because your neighbor’s contractor hauled all the debris into a rented dumpster, it’s not a given that yours will too. It’s important for customers to differentiate between the types of contractors that exist in this field.  There is the general contractor who is in charge of acquiring permits, scheduling inspections, hiring subcontractors, and in general managing and supervising all aspects of the job. This is not the same as a specialty contractor who is in charge of installing a particular product like tiles, fixtures, or kitchen cabinets. Lastly, there is the architect who designs homes, additions, and extensions, and deals with structural change.  .

Contractors generally oversee all services, unless subcontractors are hired for specifics like AC or paint. They should also supply most if not all labor and materials excluding tiles, bathroom tiles, lighting fixtures and kitchen items,  Rubenstein says. To avoid having any potential disagreements about what will happen during a remodel job, you need to make sure your contract is iron clad with everything clearly specified. No detail is too trivial to note. What should you put in the contract? “Everything,” advises Altheim. “The more detailed, the smoother the job will go.”  

A contractor should be hired only once you are ready to build and after approval from the architect, says Rubenstein.


May I See Your License and Insurance?

Licensed contractors tend to cost more than unlicensed because they have to pay a licensing fee, obtain a bond to protect their work, and may need to purchase liability or workers compensation insurance. When hiring a contractor, make sure he has the proper licensing and insurance, not only for himself, but his subcontractors should have the proper licenses as well. License professional are required to perform their work under strict code guidelines and pass inspections.  In order to be licensed, professionals must pass a written and practical exam and prove at least seven years of experience (in most trades).   In cases of an accident occurring on the premises or damage done to the house during construction, the home owner will be covered and will not be at risk of spending money to protect himself and his property from lawsuits, explains Altheim. 

According to the Better Business Bureau, acquiring a license in a specific field demonstrates that the person has at least a minimal level of competence in that field. Now, that doesn’t mean that a licensed contractor will be more competent than an unlicensed one, but it does imply he has more experience and will stand by his work as he’s required to participate in arbitration hearings if any disputes arise. Hiring an unlicensed contractor can make the homeowner liable for the contractor’s negligence. A contractor that is negligent of a neighboring property, a passerby, or other property that is damaged  may result in the homeowner being responsible for the contractor’s actions. To find a licensed and accredited contractor, contact the Better Business Bureau. At the end of the day though, a license is just a piece of paper. Reputation is equally important because you need someone who will complete the job.


Repairing Problems

If there is a problem with the door hinges or tile grout, that is the contractor’s headache, but what happens when you have a problem with the contractor himself?  Experiencing issues with your contractor is to be expected, whether about unforeseen costs, delays, scheduling conflict, unmet expectations, or miscommunication. Before you rush off to file a claim or hire a lawyer, try to work it out with the contractor. He wants to do a good job and have a satisfied customer, so remember he is not the enemy here.

Rubenstein suggests approaching the issue nicely instead of being confrontational. One good way to prevent potential disputes is to have everything documented with a detailed contract which clearly outlines the job, cost, timeline and any other provisions you want specified. Record as much as you can and document and photograph everything so there is always evidence and a paper trail. But no matter how iron clad your contract is, life happens and expectations are not met. This could be due to bad weather, illness, and unforeseen structural complications – and sometimes due to the customer themselves.  Customers do need to be realistic in their expectations and understand that things will probably not go as planned, and it’s not always the contractor’s fault. “Customers also need to accept responsibility when they have been unclear with the contractor and resolve disputes together,” Rubenstein says.  

Budgeting can become a big issue even if it is spelled out in the contract. Even is your contract is very specific, unforeseen complications may arise.  “Be aware that there are a lot of unexpected and unavoidable issues hiding behind the walls and under floors. Every customer, I mean everyone,  changes the plan a little, adds some electrical points, an additional sink, lighting, appliances, and list goes on. All of this adds to the budget, “says Alheim.  

A good and honest contractor will work hard to make sure that the customer is satisfied, even if that means financial loss. As Michaeli explains, “My reputation is on the line with every job, so I would rather sit down with the client in a civil manner and reach an agreement together. I give them what they want because at the end of the day, my good name is what’s important.”Having biweekly meetings with your contractor is   a good idea to effectively communicate progress. If your contractor is MIA, and refuses to meet or discuss issues, document this with pictures, video and a paper trail; don’t forget to send him letters through certified mail. If communication continues to fail, then you have the option of filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, your state attorney general, or the local consumer protection office.


Redoing your home can be stressful. Hiring the right professional team can ease some of the chaos and leave you with a beautiful finished product….one that you hopefully won’t have to revisit for another couple of decades.


Questions to ask the Contractor

Have you done a project like this before?

Is your work guaranteed?

How often will you be on-site?

Who will manage the day-to-day tasks?

What is your relationship with the subcontractors? How long have you

worked together?  

Red Flags:

Doesn’t respond to your calls, texts or emails. If he’s unreachable now, he definitely won’t be reachable later.

Doesn’t have a permanent or local mailing or office address.

Asks for too much money upfront.

Pressures you into signing a contract immediately.

Little to no references (or outdated ones).

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